A Historical Tour of Hong Kong’s Central District

The Peak Tram has been shuttling people up Victoria Peak for more than 100 years
The Peak Tram has been shuttling people up Victoria Peak for more than 100 years | © Hong Kong Tourist Board
Photo of Michele Koh Morollo
Freelance Journalist20 June 2019

The Central District (more commonly referred to as Central) on the north shore is Hong Kong’s central business district, which is also famous for its culture, nightlife and gastronomic scene. Find out how this former trade and administrative centre became a frenetic financial and commercial hub with a historical tour of Hong Kong’s Central District.

Statue Square

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Statue Square, Hong Kong
Statue Square, Hong Kong, is a pedestrian square perfect for strolling | © Peter Scholey / Alamy Stock Photo
Built on reclaimed land in the late 19th century, Statue Square was an idea conceived by prominent British-Indian businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater. He put plans in motion to build what was originally called Royal Square to honour British royalty, including Queen Victoria, with bronze sculptures. When Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the statues were displaced, and today the only one that still stands is that of Sir Thomas Jackson (1st Baronet, the chief manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation). In 1923, a war memorial – The Cenotaph – was built at the northern part of the square to honour British soldiers who died in Hong Kong during the two World Wars. Surrounded by iconic architectural landmarks like the Neoclassical-style Legislative Council Building designed by British architect Sir Aston Webb in 1912, and the futuristic HSBC headquarters building designed by British architect Norman Foster in 1985, the past coexists with modernity.

St John’s Cathedral

Cathedral, Building, Church
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St Johns Cathedral Hong Kong
St Johns Cathedral, Hong Kong, is not only a place of worship but also a historical and architectural attraction | © Michael McGimpsey / Alamy Stock Photo
One of only five cathedrals in Hong Kong, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Evangelist, more commonly referred to as St John’s Cathedral, is the oldest Anglican church in East and Southeast Asia, and the seat of Hong Kong’s Archbishop. A simple 13th-century Neo-Gothic building made of grey brick and stone, the cathedral had its inaugural service on Sunday, 11 March 1849. Though it was used as a Japanese clubhouse during World War II, it has since been restored and renovated. Nowadays, the cathedral is not only recognised as a well-utilised place of worship for the city’s cosmopolitan community but also a historical and architectural attraction.

Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Art

Art Gallery, Museum
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The Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts is a peaceful enclave for creative inspiration
Tai Kwun, Centre for Heritage and Arts, is a peaceful enclave for creative inspiration | © Tai Kwun

Built in 1841, Tai Kwun is a heritage complex that was once home to the British colony’s main police station, magistracy and the Victoria Prison. In 2018, the complex’s buildings, which had remained unused since 2006, were transformed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron into a new art, culture, dining and retail venue named Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Art. The renewed, 27,000-square-metre (290,625-square-foot) site – which includes two large courtyards, 16 carefully conserved heritage buildings and two new modern structures – is the largest restoration project that’s taken place in Hong Kong. When you visit, you can tour the old prison block, enjoy an art exhibition and then dine at one of the newly opened restaurants.

Hong Kong Zoological Park and Botanical Gardens

Botanical Garden, Park, Zoo
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Bamboo Garden At Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens
The Bamboo Garden is one highlight at the Hong Kong Zoological Park and Botanical Gardens | © Z. Jacobs / Shutterstock

Founded in 1864 and officially opened to the public in 1871, what is today the Hong Kong Zoological Park and Botanical Gardens began as a collection and research botanical park before birds and mammals were brought in around 1876. Renamed in 1975, the park today comprises two sections: the New Gardens and the Old Gardens. The New Gardens is where you will find animals such as emperor tamarins, black-and-white ruffled lemurs and adorable meerkats. Within the Old Gardens is a greenhouse, a fountain terrace where people can exercise, a bamboo garden that is ideal for meditations, and aviaries with birds such as blue crane and American flamingoes. Along Upper Albert Road, near the southern entrance to the Old Gardens, is a memorial arch commemorating the Chinese who died assisting the British Allied forces during both World Wars.

Lin Heung Tea House

Restaurant, Market, Chinese, Dim Sum, $$$
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Lin Heung Tea House Hong Kong Dim Sum
Groups of people enjoy their meals at Lin Heung Tea House | © Lin Heung Tea House

If you’re looking for an authentic dim sum meal with signature dishes like char siew bao and siew mai brought to your table on traditional trolleys, Lin Heung is a Hong Kong tea-house-style restaurant that is not to be missed. Founded in Guangzhou in 1889, it opened in Hong Kong in 1926 and has been at its current address since 1980. The place has a raucous atmosphere that’s quintessentially Hong Kong, with waiters bustling about with dishes and metal kettles to top up the pots of jasmine tea on tables. Besides dim sum, Lin Heung also serves banquet-style Chinese cuisine for lunch and dinner.

Peak Tram

Hill Station, Park
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At 552 metres (1,811 feet) tall, Victoria Peak is the highest hill in Hong Kong, and one of the best spots to enjoy stunning panoramic views. One of the best ways to reach Victoria Peak is on the Peak Tram, which ascends to 396m (1,299ft) above sea level. Sir George William des Veoux, then governor of Hong Kong, launched the tram’s first public service on 28 May 1888. While there is only one seating class, from 1888 to 1926, the tram was divided into three seating classes – First Class for British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak, Second Class for British military and the Hong Kong Police Force personnel, and Third Class for regular citizens and animals. As one of the oldest trams in the world, the Peak Tram played a significant role in the rapid increase of residential developments in the Mid-Levels and Victoria Peak. Upon your arrival, you can find out more about the tram’s history at the Peak Tram Historical Gallery.

SoHo and the Mid-Levels Escalator

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Around 78,000 people ride the SoHo Mid-Levels Escalator every day
Around 78,000 people ride the SoHo Mid-Levels Escalator every day | © Kees Metselaar / Alamy Stock Photo
Between the nightlife hub of Lan Kwai Fong and the business, food and beverage zone of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong’s Central District lies SoHo (short for South of Hollywood). The area received its moniker around 1993 when the Hong Kong government built the Central-Mid-Levels escalator to better connect the business district of Central with the Mid-Levels residential district. This 800-metre-long (2,624ft) escalator – which rises more than 130m (426ft) – is the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system, and one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attractions. Prior to the construction of the escalator, the area now known as SoHo was a quiet residential area with a handful of printing companies, go-downs, porcelain shops and small family-owned stores. The new changes led to a large-scale commercial boom, and a vibrant urban renewal that attracted many local and expatriate entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. Today, the area contains close to 300 commercial venues and eateries. Coined by Thomas Goetz, a resident and former restaurant owner, he used the name SoHo in an article issued by the South China Morning Post in 1996, which led to its official name change.

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